Sniffing Out Truffles with Milli

On a crisp, late-November morning, we gather on a ridge-top gravel road deep in the heart of Tuscany. On one side stretches a postcard panorama of rolling hills, pointy cypresses, and distant ridges. On the other is a thick forest, labeled with Italian signs:  “Keep out! Private truffle-hunting property!”

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We meet our guide for the morning: Paolo the truffle hunter. Paolo explains how he bought this property for a song because he had a hunch it’d be great for truffles. Now his main occupation is tending the forest and seeking out those elusive deposits.

Paolo explains that you can’t plant a truffle, and you can’t predict exactly where they’ll grow. They tend to appear near the roots of trees, under a few inches of soil and a gentle layer of fallen leaves. He works hard clearing the forest, creating an ideal habitat. Then he grinds up the season’s unsold truffles and scatters their spores. And then he waits…and hopes. White truffle season — when the pungent odor of the most precious type of truffle is released — has just begun. It’s time to harvest.

Because truffles grow entirely underground, the only way to find them is by scent. And human noses just aren’t sophisticated enough for the job. So Paolo introduces us to “la protagonista”: Milli.

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Milli is a lovable, exuberant pup with a short, thick, curly coat and laser-beam, beady eyes that are always trained on Paolo. He tells us she’s a breed called lagotto romagnolo…but she looks like a miniature golden doodle to me. Her name means “Thousand” in Italian. Makes sense — a half-pound chunk of white truffle can bring in that many euros.

When Milli was just ten days old, they began training her to find truffles. The first part is easy: You give them a taste for truffles by feeding them little bits. Before long, they can sniff them out anywhere. The hard part, Paolo explains, is to train them to stop eating truffles.

Andiamo! It’s time to hunt. Paolo and Milli lead us down a steep trail into a wooded ravine. Light twinkles through half-bare trees as we wade through a thick carpet of leaves. “What goes up, must come down,” everyone chuckles as we descend. At one point, Milli pauses and begins rummaging and scratching around in the middle of the path. Paolo diffuses everyone’s excitement by explaining that she’s found a “dog truffle” — with a similar pungent odor, but not palatable to humans. Milli enjoys this little truffle treat before continuing on her way.

Reaching the bottom of the ravine, Paolo says the magic word: “Dov’è?” (Where is it?)… and Milli is off like a shot. She scurries from tree to tree — sniffing, sniffing, sniffing — then off to the next tree. The suspense builds as twenty bundled-up Americans form a chain behind her haphazard search.

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Milli bolts off, racing through the woods after unseen truffles. Paolo runs after her. We lose sight of both of them. And then: Success! We emerge into a little clearing where Paolo stands, holding Milli back. She’s clawed through the damp earth to reveal the corner of a little gray chunk.

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Keeping one hand on Milli, Paolo uses his special skinny shovel to unearth the truffle with a surgeon’s precision.

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Holding it to his nose and inhaling deeply, he gives a “so-so” gesture. It’s not a top-quality truffle…but it’ll be profitable.

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While his audience passes around the truffle for a sniff, Paolo rewards Milli with dog biscuit after dog biscuit. He keeps saying, “Solo un’altro” (just one more) — then gives her several more treats. Could you resist?

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After just an hour or so, Milli has found two more truffles. Not a bad morning’s work.

Watching Paolo and Milli at work, it’s clear that if you enjoy wandering through the woods with your best friend at your side, there are few more rewarding careers than being a Tuscan truffle hunter.

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